In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.
T.S.Eliot, East Coker (1940)
Signpost to Naish Priory in the woods at Burton, East Coker
It was not a particularly auspicious weekend weather-wise when I travelled to Somerset with my cousin last month. We had arranged to meet up with our elderly aunt on the Saturday of our long weekend in the West Country, and so decided it would make sense to look around East Coker the day before our planned visit. This would allow my cousin to see the places that I hoped my aunt would still be able to describe to us from her memories of the wartime evacuation, and make the experience more meaningful.
Thus it was a cool, wet and blustery Friday afternoon when we arrived in the village – not what I’d intended at all. My first visit in July 2005 (see East Coker) had certainly been influenced by the good weather and I’d wanted my cousin to have the same initial impression. However, fortified with tea and cakes from the National Trust café after our trip to nearby Montecute House, and sporting the matching bucket hats we’d purchased in Sherborne the day previously, we decided there was nothing to stop us exploring the village in the wind and rain. And maybe it would even clear up later, we told ourselves rather optimistically. (It didn’t).
A lucky coincidence saw us approaching East Coker by way of the sunken lanes I’d already described to my cousin. I’m not quite sure how much Sandra appreciated having to squeeze her car by a number of large vehicles exiting the village, but she certainly agreed with me that it was an ‘exciting’ way to arrive. It also brought home why the new Keyford housing estate is slated to be situated near the Dorchester Road at the far end of the village. Those pesky narrow lanes effectively sealed off the other part of East Coker (where our fathers had lived with our aunt and grandmother during WW2) from further development, and thankfully could not be widened due to planning regulations.
A sunken lane on the approach to East Coker
We soon passed the old hamlet of Burton and the end of Burton Lane (which led to the farmhouse cottage where the Skeltons had lived for the duration of the war). We had, however, already decided to head straight for the heart of the village (what had once been called Up Coker), and park by the alms houses next to the church. Not only did this mean we could start our walk by viewing the impressive St Michael’s, with its T. S. Eliot memorial, but it also gave me the opportunity to show my cousin the first cottage in which our grandmother was billeted (West Wells), and where I was told she’d only stayed for a short time as she’d been unhappy about being made to ‘feel like a skivvy’ by the woman of the house.
The 17th century alms houses by the church
A wedding rehearsal in the church meant we only had time for a cursory look around, and I was glad that I’d had the chance to attend a Sunday service with my mother on our first visit back in 2005. It was on that July morning that I felt the sense of the community that pervades the place, as well as delighting in the Englishness of the service, which was so different from my memories of attending the Church of Scotland in my youth.
Conscious of the worsening weather, we did not stop for a drink in the Helyar Arms as planned (called The New Inn until 1948), but headed past the pub and along the road leading to Sutton Bingham – once a scattered village and now a reservoir, whose medieval church with pre-reformation wall paintings had been preserved. My mother and I had visited the church on that first trip, and had wondered at the homes which had disappeared. My father would have known the village (where there had been a railway station, closed in the early 60s, but not as part of the reservoir development), and it must have been an uncanny experience for him to return to the area and see that great expanse of water where once there were farmhouses and fields.
Cottages at Coker Marsh
In the end we only got halfway up the road before heavy rain halted us in our tracks. However, it was enough to give Sandra a feel for this part of the village – called Coker Marsh – and where our uncle’s extended family (the Bouchers) had lived in one of the stone cottages which lined the road. Walking back the same way towards the church, I noticed a small stream running along the left-hand side of the road which, judging from the stone channel in which it ran, looked like it might have once had a purpose beyond just taking away runoff water. The remains of a cress bed? I could not remember it from my earlier visits, but wondered whether this was because it had been dried up previously. This made me think about other aspects of the village I might have missed, or forgotten about, and I realised that although I generally prefer to explore places on my own, by showing Sandra around East Coker I was strengthening my own mental map of the area.
Our next plan – to walk via Back Lane to Burton – was stymied by more heavy rains so we missed out going there on foot, much to my disappointment. While it was certainly useful to have a car, particularly in such horrible weather, I have always relished my own rambles around the area, climbing the many wooden stiles and taking the lanes that lead to the neighbouring villages. Being a non-driver admittedly closes off some opportunities, but also means that walking long distances becomes commonplace (just as it once was). For years I was slightly ashamed of this proclivity for visiting new places under my own steam, often in combination with public transport, as I always felt it made me seem like a second-class citizen. But now that eschewing car ownership has suddenly become more mainstream, I feel less defensive about my lack of driving skills.
Wild Flowers in Back Lane
Although we missed out on the very charming footpath up Back Lane – which my aunt later told us was one where she would go with our uncle before they were married and wanted some privacy – I did, however, convince Sandra to park up at North Coker and walk along the road to Burton Cross. This meant that we were able to admire the stone cottages, many with thatched roofs, and their bright and blowsy, albeit rain-soaked, gardens. We passed by what had once been the shop and post office, a sad reminder of how little of these services remain in rural locations. On my first visit in 2005 it had still been trading and my mother and I had been grateful to be able to purchase snacks and a newspaper. No doubt my father would have spent any hard-earned pocket money there – as had most of the village children throughout the years – as well as in the small shop next to the pub, which had long since closed. And I pictured him scampering along the road, after having helped out with the harvest or haymaking, wondering whether to spend his precious farthings and ha’pennies on liquorice or boiled sweets.
As we walked up Burton Lane to the cottage where my grandmother and the three children lived during the war, I tried to picture it as it had been in the 1940s, devoid of the new bungalows which were squeezed in between the row of original cottages and the fields. I had once come across a photograph of the lane, taken shortly before the war, which showed a herd of short-horned cows being driven along a narrow dirt track bounded by hedges, trees and fields. In the distance all that could be seen was the roof of the wooden gospel hall – the building my grandmother cleaned in return for reduced rent on the rather spartan Burton Farm cottage opposite.
Looking down Burton Lane from the road end today
On this visit, I was more conscious of the modern houses which flanked the lane, looking shabbier now that previously. And I could swear that a couple of newbuilds had popped up between them in the once generous gardens, giving the lane a more hemmed-in feel. In contrast, the original cottages nearer the road-end appeared even more attractive next to their characterless suburban-looking neighbours. Yet I was aware that to have lived there once would have meant putting up with cold and damp and darkness for a good part of the year.
As Sandra is particularly interested in old buildings (but still wants to live in a modern one), I had little difficulty in persuading her to take the sandy track which ran by the chapel towards Culliver’s Grave (the name of a field) and at a crossroads in the woods turns off to Naish Priory. This 14th century Grade 1 listed building is now a private home, and although it was never a true priory, it did once have religious connections. It is, however, a remarkable survivor from the period with a price tag only the super-wealthy can afford. Currently it’s owned by the local conservative MP and arch-brexiteer, banker Marcus Fysh, which may explain the number of EU flags draped over the front gates of several more modest houses in the village!
Side view of Naish Priory
The following afternoon, when I told my aunt of our trip to the priory through the woods, she explained that this was the way she’d walked from the farm cottage to pick up the school bus to Yeovil (a 1920s charabanc brought out of retirement for the evacuees). Although it did not seem like much of a short cut, I’m sure there was a good reason for my aunt to use this trail, rather than take the road. Perhaps she’d simply wanted to avoid someone (such as the farmer who was rather touchy-feely) or had enjoyed the lonely track, which she’d undertaken in all weathers.
Asking someone at an advanced age about their reminiscences is obviously something which needs to be handled sensitively, and I was conscious of the fact that it felt just as important for us to talk to our aunt about the present as the past. Luckily Sandra – who knew our older English cousins much better than I did – was able to supply that side of the conversation. While she browsed through photographs of a recent family wedding, I showed my aunt some of the old family photographs I’d accumulated over the years. Most of these she could remember, as either I’d sent her copies in the post or she’d been the one to furnish me with the originals. However, viewing them together was a completely different experience. Each image released a most astounding array of sharp memories, as if the photograph had been taken yesterday. For example, a great-uncle I’d never known (my grandmother’s beloved older brother) was described by my aunt for the first time as being ‘pompous’. Even as a boy you can see it in the way he looks!
Sometimes I just had to catch my breath and listen carefully as my aunt described such momentous events as The Crystal Palace burning down in a relatively matter-of-fact way: Mother called us to the window and said there must be a huge fire going on somewhere over South London. We did not know then that it was the great Crystal Palace where we went to listen to bands on a Sunday. My aunt then told us about the car races in the grounds of the Crystal Palace that my grandparents took them to watch. The car racing at Sydenham was something I had not known about, and seemed a strange thing for a young family to do. But then when reading more about it afterwards, I discovered that these were really popular events, which in the 1930s would have perhaps fascinated a wider variety of people.
Crystal Palace burning down, November 30th, 1936
And so it was that the afternoon continued in a most delightful fashion, my aunt moving lightly from the present to the past, depending on the topic of conversation, her face a range of flickering emotions. Shafts of late summer light from the garden fell through the open stable door of my aunt’s tiny 18th century cottage lighting up her features, which, as Sandra remarked later, made her look like Nana and Grandad rolled into one person. Behind my aunt on the wall, a clock ticked ominously, making me aware of the limited hours we had – and not just on that afternoon. It was one of those rare moments (or rather a collection of moments, strung together like delicate fairy lights illuminating the dark) where it seems that time has ceased to exist in normal terms. I felt as if we had almost slid into another world: one in which we could glide between 1929 and 2019 with ease, summoning up ghosts along the way.
My aunt’s stories – delivered in that funny old-fashioned clipped London accent that the whole family once had – triggered a range of emotions in me that Sandra later told me flitted across my face in the same way as my aunt’s (and, if truth be told, just like Sandra herself). With my aunt’s uncanny ability to describe past events in exquisite detail, frozen moments in photographs were suddenly set free to take on their own momentum. A picture of the back yard at Denmark Road reminded her of how she and my father used to dare each other to climb over the fence into the next door neighbour’s garden at night and run around without getting caught. She explained that this was because the neighbour’s back yard was actually planted out with shrubs and flowers and had a lawn – as opposed to the more functional space to the rear of their own house.
Another photograph of my aunt and father in fancy dress brought back a memory of a party at school. My aunt explained that my grandmother had been so delighted with the sight of her two children all dressed up in their costumes (number three was yet to be born) that they went straight from their junior school in nearby Crawford Street to a local photographer’s studio in their outfits. And that slightly superior-looking smile on her face? Well her Pierrot suit had been specially made for her, whereas my father had just had to contend with what he could find in the dressing up box.
My aunt and father in fancy dress c1933
That afternoon I also learnt that the dog my grandfather brought home to Denmark Road one day, surprising his children, had actually never been meant as a family pet but as a guard dog to protect the house from a ‘light-fingered’ family two doors down. My aunt laughed to recall that one night when they all returned home from a day out (perhaps at the Crystal Palace), the house had been ransacked and the dog was found quivering under the table.
Such tales, although not dramatic in themselves, are important to family historians. Not only do they bring the very human side of genealogy to the fore, but also illustrate the concerns of previous generations – which may have been very different from our own. They also help us to understand the behaviour of our ancestors. As a child I always thought it strange that my father obsessively checked all the locks on the doors and windows of our bungalow every night and admonished us if we left our bicycles outside. I wonder, too, if he perhaps felt guilty that his childhood dog was just left out in the back yard most of the time. In contrast, our own family dog went everywhere with us and was (according to the vet) literally walked to death by my father and myself.
Our Cocker Spaniel, Jet, 1974-1982
My aunt, however, does not suffer fools gladly (just like my grandfather and father) and certainly could not simply be described as some sweet old lady siting in a rocking chair waiting for her relatives to visit. One of the reasons I had not seen so much of her over the years is that she and my father did not always have the easiest of relationships. He found her bossy; she found him difficult. But their younger brother (Sandra’s father) was the adored baby of the family who kept the infrequent family reunions going throughout the years. My last memory of my aunt on that Saturday afternoon is of her standing in her front garden as we prepared to take our leave (with promises to return in a few months) jabbing at the twisted trunk an old wisteria tree with one of her walking sticks. She was annoyed with the fact that while she wanted the tree cut down to let in more light, her neighbours wanted it to remain. This was because the old wisteria’s spreading branches also decorated the facades of their own cottages, added value to the homes.
Later that evening, ensconced in a quiet country pub, Sandra and I browsed through my copy of East Coker: A Village Album by Abigail Shepherd, a book very much rooted in the tradition of oral history. My cousin was able to easily recognise the old photographs of the places we’d visited, so little had changed in East Coker over the last century and a half, and we both expressed our amazement that our aunt (who also had a copy) had been able to recognise so many people in the book. Not only had she been able to locate Sandra’s father as a child from a sea of other schoolchildren who were all in fancy dress to commemorate the end of the war, but she was able to put names to the blurry faces of some of the adults standing sheepishly at the back. I found it equally impressive that she’d known who everyone was in my father’s boyhood photograph of the 1944 Whit Monday trip to Coker Woods, the discovery of which had reawakened my interest in my Skelton family history (see In my Beginning is my End).
The photograph of my father (right) with friends, East Coker 1944
Since returning from my visit to Somerset, I’ve been rereading Abigail Shepherd’s informative and entertaining book about East Coker, discovering facts I’d previously missed or forgotten about, and tying in some of the stories my aunt told us about (such as Queen Mary’s visit to Mrs Dorothy Walker-Heneage at Coker Court in 1941) with the reminiscences outlined in the book. As East Coker: A Village Album was first published in 1997, many of those interviewed are no longer alive today to tell their tales, including my father’s friend, Alan Cornelius, who as a teenager had taken the group photograph in the local woods with his father’s Box Brownie.
I’m glad that I was finally able to meet Alan Cornelius, and learn about his wartime boyhood experiences, and am grateful for the copy of his (unpublished) notes on the subject of the ‘vacuees. By chance, my aunt told me last month that one wartime Christmas the only electric bulb they possessed in their small farm cottage gave up the ghost, prompting her mother to ask her to go to the Cornelius household to see if they had a spare. Of course, my aunt being my aunt simply put her foot down and refused to go out begging for a lightbulb on Christmas Day, and so the family had to celebrate in candlelight. Which sounds as if it might have been wonderful for everyone but my poor grandmother!
Of course, today marks the day 80 years ago when my aunt and father were evacuated with their respective schools: my aunt to East Coker with Charles Edward Brook School for Girls in Camberwell, and my father to Leatherhead in Surrey with his school. However, only a few months later my grandmother was able to move to East Coker with her youngest son and bring the three children together under one roof, while my grandfather continued to work in London. For a fourteen year old like my aunt, the evacuation seemed more like an adventure away from the restrictions of her parents, in particular my grandfather, who could be a rather strict father.
As Alan Cornelius pointed out to me, there was great excitement in the village when the evacuees arrived and a lively social scene grew up, with boys’ and girls’ clubs held at Coker Court, as well as local dances, sports events and cultural activities. It is not surprising then to learn that many of these wartime friendships blossomed into relationships and then into the inevitable (in those days) marriages. It seems strange to think that my aunt’s lifelong connections to the area – cemented by her marriage to a popular local East Coker boy – all hinged on the lottery of the evacuation on the 1st of September 1939.
The Incidental Genealogist, September 2019